Why Israel lost

After its four-week bombardment, a three-day ceasefire reveals that the ground has shifted under Israel.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
5 August 2014

A new, seventy-two-hour ceasefire in Gaza began to take effect on the morning of 5 August 2014. Whether or not it lasts, both the Israeli government and the Hamas leadership will need to claim success after twenty-eight days of bitter conflict that has left more than 1,800 Palestinians killed and thousands injured. Israeli politicians are saying that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have been able to withdraw from Gaza following the destruction of the infiltration tunnels, and that the air-force is still able to hit targets throughout the territory. The implication is that Israel has good cause to claim success. 

A closer look suggests otherwise. Three incidents on particular days during the war indicate why. 

The first was twelve days into the war, 20 July, when the IDF was moving ground-troops into Gaza, aiming partly to continue destroying rocket-launchers but also to uncover the tunnels. On that day alone, the elite Golani brigade lost thirteen men killed and well over fifty injured. The dead included a battalion deputy commander and the wounded the brigade’s commanding officer, Colonel Ghassan Alian (see “Gaza: Context and Consequences”, Oxford Research Group, 31 July 2014). The overall level of resistance, and especially the abilities of the Hamas paramilitaries, came as a shock to the IDF, even as it was coming to realise that the tunnels constituted a far more serious problem than expected (see "Israel vs Hamas, a war of surprises", 24 July 2014).

The second incident, on 28 July, confirmed this. By then, large numbers of IDF personnel were in Gaza, the emphasis being very much on detecting and destroying the tunnels. Yet in the midst of this intensive operation a Hamas group was in an extraordinary way able to use an undetected tunnel, emerge on the Israeli side of the border, and attack a border post (not civilians in a kibbutz, Nahal Oz, as was reported at an early stage). The group killed five young Israeli soldiers, all sergeants aged 18 to 21, who were on a leadership-training exercise.

The third incident, on 30 July, was the shelling of a United Nations school in the Jabaliya refugee camp, which killed twenty-one people, including children asleep at the time (it was 4.40 a.m.) and injuring scores. The attack is reported to have been carried out using long-range artillery, and to have been aimed at Hamas paramilitaries threatening an IDF unit attempting to destroy a tunnel entrance, within 320 metres of the school. A UN review found that ten shells were fired over approximately five minutes, three hitting the school and two more striking within fifty metres (see Ben Hubbard & Jodi Rudoreren, “Questions over deadly barrage on shelter”, New York Times, 5 August 2014).

At the time the school was sheltering 3,220 people in a twenty-four-room complex, part of a much wider UN sheltering programme catering for 260,000 people in ninety schools and other facilities. It was one of six UN sites hit during the four-week war, provoking severe criticism that using inaccurate long-range artillery against targets in densely populated urban areas is (at least) highly questionable (see "America, Israel, Gaza: missiles and politics", 19 July 2014).

The three incidents together highlight major difficulties for the Israeli government. The shelter attack, for example, is amplified by the new social media. Even since the last major ground-assault into Gaza - Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 - there has been rapid development of instant smartphone video-recording and distribution techniques.  

The effect is twofold: to spread directly and worldwide graphic images of the impact on civilians, and to make western media outlets more likely to show that same impact in greater detail. Support for the war inside Israel has remained strong throughout, but the country's reputation has suffered considerably across the world, and some major western news outlets that would normally be broadly supportive express huge doubts about the long-term consequences of Israel's assault (see ("Israel and the world: us and them", Economist, 1 August 2014).

The war beneath

Even so, it might at first sight seem to be stretching it to talk of Israel “losing” this war. A fuller analysis does however point in this direction. Recall the stated initial aim, which was to suppress rocket fire. This has simply not happened, amid strong suspicions that Hamas and other militias may have expended less than half of their arsenals; the IDF itself estimates that Hamas still has 3,000 rockets available.  

The second aim was to destroy the infiltration tunnels, and here too the operation is flawed. As of 3 August the IDF had uncovered forty tunnels, invariably with multiple access-points, far more than anticipated. Moreover, Hamas strategists will have prepared for just this kind of IDF operation. Building tunnels deep underground and completely back-filling the entry-points would make them difficult if not impossible to detect; with knowledge of the approximate location of the incomplete tunnels, they can be found, opened up and completed after the withdrawal of IDF forces.

It is not commonly realised just how remarkable are the tunnelling abilities that have been acquired in Gaza. A single infiltration tunnel ran for 2.4 kilometres, was twenty metres below ground level and utilised 350 tons of concrete in the lining (see Shane Harris, “Extensive Hamas Tunnel Network Points to Israeli Intelligence Failure”, Foreign Policy, 3 August 2014). 
The explanation for this capability is in part the huge experience of building access tunnels for commercial transit under the border with Egypt over recent years. A report on Al-Jazeera says that over 500 of these tunnels have been constructed to connect Gaza with Egypt, with 7,000 Gazans employed in their building. Even if the IDF had destroyed all the Hamas infiltration tunnels, which is highly unlikely, constructing more would not take long. It is the knowledge and the trained workforce that count here.

In addition, perhaps the least recognised aspect of Protective Edge has been the level of Israeli casualties, which has far exceeded initial fears. (The Palestinian losses - over 1,800 killed and 9,000 injured, more than 68% of them civilians - are of course much greater). A comparison with Cast Lead in 2008-09 is instructive. In that operation the IDF killed 1,440 Palestinians over twenty-three days, and lost nine soldiers in combat, as well as four in a friendly-fire incident. This time the IDF has so far lost sixty-four soldiers in twenty-eight days. Military censorship has allowed reporting of deaths but very little information on injuries, but an informed Israeli source puts these at over 400.

The Jewish population of Israel is about one-tenth of the population of the UK. This means that the proportional losses in twenty-eight days exceed the UK’s combined losses in six years' fighting in Iraq and twelve years in Afghanistan. In a revealing assessment, a retired United States army major-general, Robert H Scales, and a defence analyst, Douglas A Ollivant, put it this way:

“Gone are the loose and fleeting groups of fighters seen during Operation Cast Lead in 2008. In Gaza they have been fighting in well-organized, tightly bound teams under the authority of well-connected, well-informed commanders. Units stand and fight from building hideouts and tunnel entrances. They wait for the Israelis to pass them by before ambushing them from the rear” (see “Terrorist armies fight smarter and deadlier than ever”, Washington Post, 4 August 2014).

Extending their analysis to wider regional developments, including the Islamists in Iraq, they deliver a somewhat bombastic concluding paragraph that (given the source) is still worth quoting:

“What we see in Gaza, Syria and Iraq should serve as a cautionary tale for any Beltway guru calling for a return of U.S. forces to Iraq. U.S. soldiers and Marines are still the global gold standard, but their comparative advantage has diminished. As terrorist groups turn into armies, pairing their fanatical dedication with newly acquired tactical skills, renewed intervention might generate casualties on a new scale - as the Israelis have been painfully learning.”

On 4 August, the Israelis first offered a short ceasefire and have now agreed a three-day pause. This contrasts markedly with prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s insistence - just a day earlier - on "completing the mission". Perhaps the sudden change stems from reports from Israeli ambassadors around the world, perhaps the Barack Obama administration finally exerted pressure. But perhaps it was the IDF commanders who had a much clearer vision than their political leaders and simply said they should declare victory and withdraw while they could.

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